10. Fez (Polytron)
I think many people were sick of Fez before it was even released. They were sick of the hype in the press, sick of the perpetual delays, sick of Phil Fish’s unfortunately rash, headline-grabbing rants, sick of the glorifying of a single indie game over all others. Its incredible 2D/3D world-turning mechanic had been stripped of all novelty by the time the game found its way into peoples hands. Fez was a victim of its own fame—not unlike Fish himself.
Yet it remains one of my most most memorable games (and worlds) of the year. I don’t understand the complaints claiming it is too simple or boring, or too dependent on NES-era nostalgia. What I see is a beautiful and unobtainable world, always out of reach of my sensory apparatus. There is an entire world there, but my perception of it conceals as much as it reveals. This uncanny feeling of never quite ‘knowing’ the world made the world-turning far more than a gimmick for me. It was a way of seeing, and a commentary on the way every game (never mind our realities) has a specific way of being seen.
People were perhaps expecting a challenging platformer or spatial puzzles. Instead, we got a world that, for the most part, you simply move through. It’s not unlike Nifflas’s Knytt games, or Super Metroid minus the combat in this way. You just move through the world and unlock its secrets, figuring out how it is threaded together. The minimalist music and bright colours and lazy day-night cycle reinforced this relaxed play style of just wandering through a world.
Then there are the riddles—not puzzles, riddles. Each world is like a page from a Graeme Base book. At first the backgrounds are just pretty images and textures. But over the course of the game you realise their are languages hidden in those textures. As much as flipping the camera ninety-degrees, this totally shifts your perception of the world. Suddenly, there are meanings and allusions everywhere—a whole new layer of connections stretching across the worlds.
Finding the messages, interpreting them through mappin images of Tetris shapes or rumbles of vibration motors to controller buttons, became a whole new game atop the simple pleasure of exploring the spatial world. I played through the entire game with my girlfriend, who decoded the alphabet and solved many of the world’s more obscure riddles. We never could ‘see’ the whole world, but together we understood it the best we possibly could, and that felt pretty special.
I wrote about the phenomenon of never quite ‘knowing’ the world in any objective sense for Unwinnable. Also at Unwinnable, I wrote some thoughts about Indie Game: The Movie, especially in relation to the depiction of Phil Fish.
9. Tokyo Jungle (Crispy’s)
I had assumed the rabid, near desperate cult following that quickly formed around Tokyo Jungle were attracted simply by its ‘weirdness’. This isn’t 2004. We don’t get many low budget/big heart weird games these days. That was (understandably) enough for people to sing the praise of this post-apocalypse-pet-sim-roguelike-like, I thought. But, truly, Tokyo Jungle fully deserves the praise it has received. More than simply weird, it is refreshingly unique and unlike any other game I’ve played.
The point is, simply, to keep your bloodline alive for as many years and decades as possible. You are constantly dying, however. In the short term, your hunger bar is always emptying while, in the long term, your animals will die of old age (if they live long enough!). Breeding is thus crucial, requiring you to find a mate and pass the torch to the next generation.
There is always something you need to be doing in Tokyo Jungle, be it eating, breeding, drinking hunting, hiding, or migrating. While other permadeath games are about making the downtime between conflicts more tense, Tokyo Jungle is about never having downtime. Downtime is to starve to death.
The greatest attraction to Tokyo Jungle is the sheer variety of animals, each requiring a slightly different approach. The greatest variations are between carnivores and herbivores, but every species has its own identity and nuances to take into account. More than the way they all play differently, simply trying to complete the challenges to unlock all of them is enough to keep the game engaging for ages.
The challenges are an interesting (and perhaps divisive) twist on the gameplay. Not just achievements to be completed whenever you desire, they are only active during certain decades, demanding a certain amount of forward planning and resource conservation. Maybe next decade I need to get to Dogenzaka, and I need to change generations twice. So I’ll stop in Shibuya Station, breed once, go to Dogenzaka, and breed again.
The world is open enough and, remarkably, not at all constrained by its side-scrolling perspective (something I was originally skeptical about). The music supplies a perfect beat as you run through the decades, bringing to mind Fatboy Slim’s “Right Here, Right Now” video. Even standing still, each animal bounces with a rhythmic pulse.
Most satisfying, though, is Tokyo Jungle’s utter disregard for plausibility. It’s not that it is simply being weird for the sake of being weird; it’s just not concerned at all that what it wants to be might come across as weird. “Armour” can be equipped on different animals, in the form of baseball caps or paw slippers. It’s hilarious and no more jarring for being ridiculous.
Tokyo Jungle sits squarely in the vacuous hole that sucked ‘B’ grade games out of existence, that no-man’s land between AAA and indie. This is low budget and big heart, and exactly the kind of game we need more of.
Joel McCoy wrote about how ‘survival’ mode is really about consumption and capitalism. Jackson W Ryan, meanwhile, looks at what Tokyo Jungle has to say about the ascent (and perhaps the fall) of human kind.
8. Binary Domain (Sega)
I think Eric Swain said it best at Popmatters: Binary Domain assumes that you are intelligent. It assumes you’re just going to get the complex themes it is presenting. It isn’t going to force its themes of looking past artificial binary construction to a more complex, contradictory reality of existences and ways-of-being down your throat. It isn’t too concerned if you don’t get that at all. It just seems to assume your going to be paying attention and that you’ll get it. (Side note: Far Cry 3’s writer seems to think that game is doing exactly the same thing, yet I would argue it failed miserably. Not sure what the difference there is yet.)
Binary Domain isn’t an exploration of what it means to be human so much as an exploration of what it means to define human in the first place. This sounds like bizarrely high (and bizarrely intellectual) praise for a Japanese cover-shooter about shooting limbs off robots. When Binary Domain starts, two burly US bros march into Japan to shoot giant mechs, but pervading this de rigueur gameplay are the kind of themes I'm more accustomed to finding in an academic text by Donna Haraway or N Katherine Hayles.
There is a maturity to its archetypal (and at first hugely problematic) characters and dialogue that isn’t immediately obvious. It has gimmicks like voice recognition and a ‘trust’ system that, similarly, seem to have no thematic relevance or resonance with the game’s story at first. But as the game progresses, it all just works together superbly tell an excellent story. It’s generic, conventional, and straightforward, to be sure, but there is a distinct and focused motivation behind the game that is clearly trying to tell a certain story with certain themes, and it uses all its available elements to strengthen it.
I still have trouble pinning down exactly how Binary Domain succeeds so well. Ultimately, I think, it has a voice and it knows what it wants to say. It might be punching about its weight, but that just makes it all the more charming.
I wrote a series of posts about Binary Domain for my “Sum of Parts” column at Gameranx. Apart from Eric’s post linked above, though, I’m not sure I have read anything else about Binary Domain, sadly.
7. The Unfinished Swan (Giant Sparrow)
The Unfinished Swan wasn’t an unknown game by any means, but it certainly didn’t have the same hype behind it as the likes of Fez and Journey. It’s been on its way for many years (it started life as a student project in 2008) and then, suddenly, it was out as a Playstation 3 exclusive.
The game’s drawcard is its opening stages. You are dropped in a pure white world and must throw blobs of black paint around to add depth and perspective to the world. It feels just like stumbling around a dark room with your hands out in front of you. You are blind, trying to get a vague idea of your surroundings, trying to understand just where the world is so you don’t kick your toe on it. It’s a marvellous and disorientating feeling.
Where the game will lose many players, sadly, is when you realise this world-revealing mechanic is only one fifth of the game, thrown away by a bored developer for another toy—not unlike the story’s king throws away his own projects.
But this is exactly why I think The Unfinished Swan is such a grand achievement. All of its mechanics—both the way they are developed and the way they are abandoned—resonates with a story about embracing imperfection, about creativity as being about process and not end products, about art as just playing around.
The best analogy of this comes from early in my playthrough. Just for fun, I painted a white hallway completely black, leaving not a pixel of white. When I was finished, I was just as blind as when I started. It was cloying and claustrophobic. I was trapped by my own perfection.
At just over two hours long, The Unfinished Swan is just a really, really nice game. I know ‘nice’ is typically a lazily used word when a writer can’t think of an actually useful world, but ‘nice’ is exactly what I want to say The Unfinished Swan is. When I was done with it, I just felt good. I felt content. Like I had just had an engagement with a game that was just right. Just long enough. Just short enough. Just enough new ideas tossed aside at just the right time. Everything was just right. Everything was nice.
It’s like one of those children’s books that is just as pleasurable to have read to you when you’re an adult. The kind of children’s book that doesn’t talk down to kids but assumes they are intelligent and is respectufl of them. It’s beautifulelegantsimplenice and well worth your time.
J Stephen Addcox’s essay at Game Church about The Unfinished Swan’s theme of unfinishedness is one of my favourite pieces of game criticism this year. It is succinct, to the point, and perfectly communicates what the game achieves. Scott Juster provides a convincing breakdown of the game’s story and its themes at Popmatters. In Five out of Ten magazine, Kris Ligman writes a beautiful piece about The Unfinished Swan and the effect that striving for perfection has had on her own family. I wrote the game’s review for issue 230 of Hyper, I gave it a 9/10 and, according to Metacritic, I said it was “succinct, smart, tight, fresh, mature, and beautiful. One of the year’s standout titles.” That sounds like something I would say.
6. Mark of the Ninja (Klei)
Mark of the Ninja feels like it really shouldn’t feel as incredible as it does. It feels like, surely, it existed years ago. It so perfectly achieves what it is trying to do that it is hard to believe that no game like it has really existed before now. Playing it, I am amazed at how utterly superb the game is in every way, to be sure, but moreso, I am simply confused that no one has done this before. 2D sidescrolling stealth. Surely that just makes sense?
That isn’t to downplay Klei’s tremendous achievement. Level design, animation, mechanics, story, audio design all combine to create what is simultaneously a near-perfect stealth experience and a near-perfect platforming experience. Everything has been polished. Everything has been considered. Each problem can be approached from a variety of ways. Checkpoints are regular enough to avoid having to repeat segments but not so regular as to close off the possibility of reconsidering your way forward.
The animations and the visual design are superb. Simply moving your ninja through the world, watching him slide around corners and up walls with all the elegance of a rhythmic gymnast’s ribbon. The subjective rendering of the world to fit with the ninja’s senses and perception is a creative way to counter the traditionally omniscient perspective the player has in sidescrolling games. Areas obscured by ledges or doors are blurred, with ripples of white and silhouettes of red standing in for not how the world is, but how it seems to be to the ninja’s senses—where an enemy last was, where a sound is coming from.
This is enhanced even more in New Game+, limiting the player’s vision to what is in front of the ninja, forcing you to continually look around at your surroundings.
Many critics and players overlooked the story as something just tacked on to give players an excuse to be sneaky violent ninjas. I think these people missed a very subtle commentary on videogame violence and complicity—not unlike Bioshock or Spec Ops: The Line, but with a far finer (some would say less ham-fisted), elegant touch. Perhaps it was too fine for most people. Much like, say, Portal, Mark of the Ninja’s was a story I didn’t realise I cared about until I was entirely wrapped up in it with no way out but through.
Mark of the Ninja is a love poem to stealth games written by people who clearly love playing stealth games themselves. The various costumes and gadgets and achievements force you to play in different styles, much like many stealth enthusiasts give themselves self-enforced rules and challenges. Want to play a game without killing anyone? Then choose the suit that doesn’t even have a sword. Mark of the Ninja formalises what most stealth games just leave open. It feels like Klei have just made the game they want to play which, really, is what everyone should do.
I wrote at Unwinnable about perception and subjective worlds, looking at Inception, The Line, and Mark of the Ninja. At The Gameological Society, Drew Toal interviews lead designer Nels Anderson about the game. And… I can’t recall any other articles I read about Mark of the Ninja but I’m sure they exist.
As a disclaimer, I would consider both Nels and Chris Dahlen (the game’s writer) as good friends, and have previous worked under Chris when he was editor at Kill Screen. But even if I didn’t know either of them, I feel confident saying that I would still think this game was absolutely superb.